Monday, September 11, 2017

Bangbang chicken chez Huang

Ok, let’s say you have some tasty leftover chicken from last week and it’s hot out and you don’t feel much like cooking. It could be that you only have a breast and a thigh sitting in the fridge, and you want to mix it up a bit and turn those bits into a dish that sparks the appetite and tickles the senses.

If that sounds right up your alley, then you should make bangbang chicken. (By the by, it's pronounced "bong bong," like you're whacking away on it like a drum.)

Similar in many ways to mouthwatering chicken, this traditional hot-weather appetizer from Chengdu has been updated here with fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar, which makes it even more refreshing. Plus, grated lemon zest adds a nice perfume to the nutty sauce, cutting the heaviness of the peanut butter with a bit of zing. Homemade chile oil is fabulous in any Sichuan dish, but store-bought will do in a pinch. Nestle everything on a pile of super crunchy tribute vegetable or strands of fresh cucumber, and you have the perfect way to begin a summer meal.

I like to serve this for dinner at home, but it’s also great on picnics, or even at potlucks, where it will surprise and probably seduce everyone there. This tends to disappear in a flash, so I tend to make more that I think I’ll need, and still it gets swooped up faster than anything else on the table.

Peanut butter + chicken = delicious
A lot of this has to do with the nutty sauce, I think. We just don’t do enough with peanut butter in this country, which is a crying shame. I mean, other than PBJ’s and Reese’s and peanut butter cookies, this flavorful nut butter tends to get short shrift. But everyone loves it, so here is an easy way to worm your way into the hearts and stomachs of everyone at the table.

Of course, if there are peanut allergies you have to deal with, try almond butter instead. Even soybean butter will work in a pinch, with toasted soybeans taking the place of the toasted peanuts. Or toasted sesame paste. All sorts of alternative exist nowadays.

Be sure to include the vegetables underneath to balance out the chicken and sauce. The green onions are likewise important players here. Their grassy, slightly hot nature complements the other flavors here, just like the garlic.

Crunchy toppings
If you make this ahead of time, be sure to keep the chicken, sauce, and vegetables separate until the last minute. Otherwise, the salt in the sauce will make the veggies soggy and will drown out the natural flavors of the bird. For picnics or potlucks, you can layer the chicken on top of the veggies and carry the sauce and toppings in small containers. 

A pair of chopsticks is a good choice for serving utensils, since they allow people to snatch up the whole layers without messing them up too much. Whatever you do, don’t toss them together, as the dish will look sloppy and unappetizing.

Whenever you have vegans or vegetarians coming to dinner, julienne some pressed doufu to take the place of the chicken. And for those hot days when just this one dish will have to suffice, serve it over a big pile of crispy lettuce, make double the amount of sauce, and get ready to enjoy a great salad.

Bangbang chicken chez Huang
Huángjiā bàngbàng jī  黃家棒棒雞
Sichuan
Serves 4

2 ounces (60 g) dried tribute vegetable, or 2 Persian or other seedless cucumbers
Boiling water, as needed
8 ounces (225 g), more or less, leftover boneless cooked chicken (roasted, poached, whatever), chilled

Sauce:
1 dried Thai chile
3 tablespoons peanut butter (crunchy or smooth, salted or not)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
Grated zest of half a medium lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
The sauce ingredients a la Pollack
2 or more tablespoons chile oil (homemade or store-bought)
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn oil (homemade or store-bought), optional
2 teaspoons sugar

Garnish:
Half a green onion, trimmed and sliced into thin circles
2 tablespoons chopped toasted peanuts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1. At least 3 hours before you plan to serve this, place the tribute vegetable in a heatproof work bowl and cover with boiling water. Set a plate on top to keep the vegetables submerged. After about 30 minutes, rinse the vegetables, shake dry in a colander, and cut into 1-inch (2 cm) lengths. If you are using cucumbers instead of the tribute vegetable, rinse and pat them dry before trimming off both ends, and then slice the cukes into a julienne. Arrange the vegetables on a small serving platter or bowl so that they will act as a nest for the chicken and then chill them until you are ready to serve this dish.

2. Hand shred the chicken into pieces about ¼ inch (5 mm) thick, although the length really doesn’t matter. The skin can also be cut into thin strips, if you have it.
Plumped-up tribute vegetable

3. Break the chile in half and shake out the seeds. Remove any hard bits and then soak it in boiling water to soften it up before slicing it into very thin circles. Mix the chile with the other sauce ingredients in a medium work bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you like, adding more of any ingredient to achieve the balance you like. Up to half an hour before serving, toss the chicken with the sauce to give it time to absorb some of these flavors.

4. Arrange the chicken on top of the vegetables in an attractive manner, and then sprinkle the garnishes on top. Serve chilled.

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